The New 10 Commandments of Writing Screenplays.
Most people know about writing screenplays, but if you break these commandments, your soul will be damned to eternal amateur-damnation…
…Or maybe it’ll just be a bit more difficult to become a pro. Either way, you’ll want to really consider these guidelines as you write or rewrite your screenplay.
Writing Screenplays By Commandment
1. Entertain us…or it’s over!
Entertainment is the number one reason that people go to movies. Every producer and agent knows that. So it should be the #1 focus of your screenwriting. Become a master at making any character or situation entertaining and you’ll be a writer in demand.
To be blunt, if there is anything in your script that doesn’t entertain, fix it.
2. Make EVERYTHING more interesting.
The industry is filled with readers who are fed a gourmet diet of professional screenplays. If you want yours to stand out, it has to captivate their attention and cause them to forget that they are doing a job.
This should be an ongoing campaign of yours. Make your scenes more interesting. Make your characters more interesting. Make your dialogue more interesting. Make everything more interesting.
3. Give us a lead character we can’t stop following.
Professional screenwriters intentionally create characters we want to follow. They are unique, yet familiar. We can relate to them and want to go on the journey with that character.
In general, your protagonist should be the perfect person to lead us deep into this story and the conflict that is about to occur. Don’t settle for a good lead. Go for great.
4. Promise us something special…and deliver on it.
Somehow, you have to keep people reading until the last page. Here’s a solution.
About 15 years ago, I read a book called “A Story Is A Promise” by Bill Johnson. Since then, I’ve always looked at a script from the perspective of “What is the promise you’re making to the reader/audience and how do you keep it in a unique way?”
Essentially, you are promising some major achievement by the protagonist or some big confrontation that will happen in the 3rd Act between protag and antag. If the promise is strong enough, we’ll read every page to see what happens.
5. Show us deeper meaning.
Deeper meaning can be built into the plot, character, situations, actions, and dialogue of a script. It doesn’t have to be profound, just beneath the surface…and perceived by the audience.
Audiences and readers just don’t appreciate on-the-nose writing. Subtext gives them a chance to interact with the film. They have an internal experience of the story because they are interpreting what the dialogue and actions really mean.
Because of that, it is just as important to take care of the subtext of a story as it is to create the surface story.
6. Put your characters through hell.
Great parents take care of their children and don’t let harm come to them. Great writers put their characters in the worst possible places to challenge their beliefs and physical limitations.
Don’t get the two jobs mixed up. Audiences don’t go to movies to see characters lead safe lives. They want to see your characters take risks, experience danger, and barely escape from challenging situations.
Writing screenplays will make you a tough task-master. By your final draft, your characters should hate you for all the terrible things you did to them.
7. Free up your dialogue so you can express more character.
Beginning writers often fill their dialogue with exposition and story details, thus reducing the amount of character and creativity that shows up in that dialogue. Don’t do it.
Instead, put the exposition, information, and story details into the action and situations.
For example, instead of a trainer telling a new boxer that a certain philosophy doesn’t work, have him put the character in the boxing ring and learn it by having his ass kicked. Now, the trainer doesn’t have to lecture. In fact, he is free to talk about anything – breakfast, politics, his favorite dog, etc. – because the real meaning is being delivered through the action.
It completely frees you up so you can be much more creative with your dialogue.
8. Turn cliches into fresh ideas.
In the film industry, a cliché is defined as “something we’ve seen before.” If you write a script with the same plot or the same lead characters or the same situations, people will balk at them.
Audiences want to see familiar stories told in different ways and familiar characters with something special about them. That means that your characters, situations, actions, and dialogue need to have something unique to them.
Your challenge: Hunt down every cliché in your script and brainstorm more unique ways to accomplish their purpose. Give them a twist or unique spin or different voice. It takes a bit of work, but it instantly improves your screenplay.
9. Give yourself permission to write shit in your first draft…
…and push yourself for perfection in your final draft. Not the other way around.
This is a better strategy for writing screenplays than trying to be perfect on the first draft and shoving yourself into writer’s block.
First drafts are the time for total freedom of expression, not criticizing your writing. You want to discover what you can about your story, characters, etc.
On the other side, writers often send drafts to producers that aren’t even close to ready. That’s the time to bring out your internal critic and make sure this is a perfect draft.
The more in sync you are with your creative process, the faster you’ll achieve perfection.
10. Rethink your script…until it is the most amazing it can be.
This is the ultimate challenge of a professional screenwriter – having to rethink the same script over and over until you discover the perfect way to tell this story.
Even if you think your story or character is perfect, you should have the skills to re-envision it in many different ways. Not only will this help you write a better story, it will also help you work with production companies and Studios when they request script changes.
Make those 10 Commandments part of your daily writing and someday, you’ll be soon be writing screenplays like the Hollywood writing Gods.